Review: Free Comic Book Day 2014, Part I

by Kenneth Kimbrough

Free Comic Book Day 2014

Free Comic Book Day, or FCBD for those in the know, is an annual tradition taking place on the first Saturday of May. Local comic stores give away a selection of free comics and usually hold all sorts of great sales and activities. Often, the event can be a miniature comic convention unto itself, complete with cosplay, signings, and bargains. However, even though there’s a healthy assortment of free comics to choose from, it can often be difficult to discern which comics you want. This becomes even more of a concern when stores limit the number of comics each person can take. It can be even more disconcerting if you’re a parent (there’s help with that here). However, I am fresh off a victory lap. Why? I have just completed reading every single comic from this year’s offerings. Some are great. Some are not so great. But here’s a list of my top seven, not in any particular order.

1. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century FCBD 2014 Edition (Hermes Press)

First, a brief history lesson regarding Buck Rogers’ publishing history. Perhaps one of the most prominent man-out-of-time characters, Buck Rogers was a pulp sci-fi hero originating in the late 1920s. buckrogerscoverIn addition to his daily strip, he was eventually picked up for color Sundays, starring his little brother, Buddy (this was to prevent Sunday strips interfering with the daily storyline). The main draw of this FCBD reprint is Russell Keating’s beautifully illustrated art. As a side note, it would have been nice to see his Sunday comics on larger, magazine-size paper, especially since it’s somewhat difficult to read the tiny lettering. Nonetheless, the story presented here follows Buddy and his female companion, Alura, as they attempt to quell an uprising. Also, dragons are involved. Although the pages are beautiful, equally fascinating are the ways this story is problematized by more recent cultural assumption. It’s difficult not to see Buddy and Alura as colonizers trying to reclaim a city they don’t even attempt to negotiate with. But perhaps the postcolonialism label is best saved for another time. Archival reprints are the focus here, and this comic is sure to please fans of the material.

2. Bongo Comics: Free-For-All! (Bongo Comics)

bongocoverThe Simpsons comics are usually a safe bet for some FCBD fun. The writers and artists have multiple jabs at superhero origins, parallel universes, and other comics tropes. One favorite of the bunch is a Doctor Strange pastiche starring none other than Professor Frink. Other highlights are Mr. Burns’s basement and Itchy and Scratchy lampooning Spy vs. Spy, which gets strangely metatextual if you think about it too hard. The only thing that kept this book off my kid-friendly list — which will be the subject of another FCBD review — were some slightly disturbing panels (monkey ebola virus). But beyond that, there’s not much here to make Fredric Wertham squirm.

3. Project Black Sky (Dark Horse)

Growing up on a diet of the Big Two tends to temper any approach towards other superhero franchises with more than a little skepticism. Creators often rush readers into a story, forgetting to let them become attached to new characters, and thus failing to earn their dramatic developments. projectblackskycoverHowever, Fred Van Lente and Michael Broussard do a fantastic job of introducing new readers to Captain Midnight and Brain Boy. (Admittedly, these two are characters from the Golden and Silver Ages, but that’s a long story.) The comic is a standard superhero yarn, but Van Lente presents a fun dynamic between two very different characters: one a time-dispaced superman and the other a snarky psychic. Also, they fight a cyborg gorilla who communicates through sign language. As an introduction to Dark Horse’s superhero line, this book delivers just enough fun and mystery to make new readers curious for more.

4. Hip-Hop Family Tree Two-in-One (Fantagraphics Books)

hiphopfamilytreecoverEd Piskor’s Hip-Hop Family Tree has been a critical darling in many comics circles. Presented as a 1970s comic — even going so far as to ape the treasury size and the off-white paper — Family Tree gives a detailed history of hip-hop, casting the many important artists as superheroes in their own right, each with their own origins, costumes, and even crossovers. Those familiar with either hip hop or comics will be in on the jokes. Piskor tells everyone’s stories in an engaging manner so that even those unfamiliar with the points of reference will find plenty to love about this comic.

5. The New 52: Futures End FCBD Special Edition #0 (DC Comics)

(I know. I know. I’ve just lost all credibility. But hear me out.) On learning that DC planned to launch not one, not two, but three weekly series, excitement is not the first word that came to mind. Quality control has been somewhat iffy with DC as of late, and the prospect of weekly books sounds like it would exacerbate the problem. However, the opening issue futuresendcoverof Futures End is strangely enthralling. At first this comic appears to perpetuate the problem of darkness and cynicism in the comics simply for the sake of darkness and cynicism. There’s been very little in the way of heroism at DC, and this issue presents a dark future in which the tyrannical A.I., Brother Eye (from Jack Kirby’s criminally obscure OMAC), has changed all of the heroes into grotesque monsters. Black Canary gets some of the worst treatment, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if it spurs on justified cries of women in refrigerators. But that’s not the point of this book. Just as the last superheroes are dying, Batman Beyond slips into the past in an attempt to circumvent this apocalypse, which is a strangely hopeful and heroic endeavor. Perhaps the DC Universe can be saved from a dark and cynical future brought on by careless storytelling. Or maybe this issue will set the tone for another angsty superhero comic. Only time will tell.

6. Defend Comics (The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund)

This collection of shorts is all about the fight against censorship. What’s especially pleasing is the presence of Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s history of the events leading to the Comics Code Authority. defendcomicscoverAlthough originally presented in their Comic Book History of Comics, it was nice to revisit the excerpt after becoming more familiar with the people involved. Also included are an Amelia Cole story, a High Crimes short, an Edison Rex page, and some cartoons from Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier. CBLDF’s comics have sometimes been exercises in excess, with creators exercising the full extent of their first amendment rights, but this issue is definitely packed with some rather thoughtful comics.

7. 2000 AD Special (Rebellion)

2000adcoverEasily one of the longest reads of the entire selection, 2000 AD’s 2014 special is filled with the excellent macho satire readers have come to expect. Although it’s mostly filled with reprints, there’s still plenty of content to tide any fan over. The opening story from the team of Matt Smith, Chris Burnham, and Nathan Fairbairn is easily the standout. In it, a rookie Judge finds himself in a firefight with a local gang, and the only person who can save him is the iconic Judge Dredd. Burnham and Fairbairn did excellent work on Batman Inc., and it’s a pleasant surprise to see the two together again. Also included are a Dave Gibbons Rogue Trooper story, a Leah Moore Durham Red story, and an Alan Grant Judge Anderson story. This comic is excess at its best, and for the price, it’s a steal.

That about wraps Free Comic Book Day 2014. On the whole, the selections were surprisingly readable, especially considering some of the years that I’ve thrown comics across the room. So what are you waiting for? Go get some free comics!

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After you read Kenneth’s FCBD picks, be sure to check out these related books:

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The Comics Alternative is a podcast and blog focused on the world of alternative, independent, and primarily non-superhero comics.

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